The Relation of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Formal Choices to the Life Choices of Her Characters

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When a poet and a scholar find that they both share a love for Gwendolyn Brooks, who in 1950 became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and get asked to write a paper on it, they contemplate how to begin. Each is drawn to Brooks for different reasons. For the poet, Brooks is a predecessor and an inspiration, verifying her sense that Eurocentric accentual-syllabic forms and black American life experiences can be brought together to manifest beautiful verse. For the scholar, Brooks is a kind of puzzle—what is she saying, especially in her more difficult poems? And what are the implications for literature? Can the poet and the scholar find a way to articulate separate adorations for Brooks and simultaneously write something that speaks to the common man?

Maybe the poet and the scholar shouldn’t be surprised to find that they are drawn not only to different aspects of Brooks’ work but to different poems. Early on in this attempt, the scholar knew that he wanted to examine “The Anniad,” Brooks’ longest poem in Annie Allen, the volume that won the Pulitzer. The poet was more attracted to the sonnet “The Rites for Cousin Vit,” which appears later in Annie Allen. The “Anniad”’s length and complexity for the scholar are like a lock to be picked; “Cousin Vit” seems more like the kind of poem the poet would actually like to write. So, it’s decided that the poet doaks will write her own section on “Cousin Vit,” and the scholar Henzy will do likewise on “The Anniad.” But we do keep talking, and our dialogue leads us to a realization: the two poems are about two different kinds of black female characters, and the contrast between these may well run through much of Brooks’ work: the cautious soul (Annie) and the daring disreputable one (Vit). Furthermore, we find that traditional form allows Brooks to subvert the gaze on a scorned black woman in “The Rites for Cousin Vit,” while in “The Anniad” Brooks uses formal play to distance the reader from having sympathy for the black woman pining away for romantic love.

And now that the path has been decided upon by scholar Henzy and poet doaks, we want to give readers a bit of a road map for navigating this paper. First, doaks will offer her words on “Cousin Vit,” then you will hear from Henzy on “The Anniad.” It is crucial that readers hear each writer’s distinct voice. Afterwards, we will engage in a dialogue about the two texts, how they differ and complement each other as well as Brooks’ impact on us and the literary world beyond.

The Rites for Cousin Vit” (cd)

Ms. Brooks, an educated and published poet by the tender age of 13, realized early on that being both black and female was a very precarious position in America in the early 20th century. Understanding the complexity of this “double bind,” as many refer to it now, Brooks yearned to create an alternative to the traditional black female character construction. When her editor Elizabeth Lawrence asked Brooks what inspired her to write, she responded, “to prove to others and to such among themselves who have yet to discover it that they are merely human beings, not exotics” (92). In order to prove this humanity, Brooks would need to write a nuanced and authentic character. In 1950, the year Annie Allen was published, this was a daunting, if not impossible task, but Brooks rose magnificently to the occasion.

All the constructions of black women existing at the time primarily fell into three categories. First off, the mothering mammy character, which unfortunately many of us are very familiar with, must be mentioned. Secondly, the overly promiscuous, hypersexualized Jezebel. Third and fourth, the semi-crazed tragic mulatto keeps company with the angry, shrewd Sapphire. While I don’t want to spend too much of this paper examining these reductive stereotypes, I do feel a brief explanation is necessary in order to understand how brave and avant-garde Brooks’ female characters were for this time period.

The unfortunate constructions of the mammy, jezebel, or tragic mulatto have existed for over a century; they have origins in literature but are also constantly reinforced in modern and contemporary cinema. Two of the categories, the mammy and the mulatto, were presented publicly for the first time in a major work of literature by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. As a mammy, the black female must be overweight and ever intent on soothing individuals in an overly mothering way. Her happiness is contingent on serving others and offering them her emotional support. Meanwhile, as a tragic mulatto, the black female, who is often light-skinned, or ignorant of her mixed race descent, is well-spoken and intelligent, but sad. She is relegated to living a life either of “passing” for white or submitting to subjugation due to being black in a colonial world. It was in the 1630s that the images of Jezebel and Sapphire emerged. Jezebel is the hyper-sexualized woman constantly urging men into her bed, while Sapphire is aggressive and emasculating to men. As you can see, these constructions are reductive and attempt to constrain the black female character into monoliths that don’t allow for the true reality of her existence.

Brooks as a poet was looking to debunk the previously mentioned, reductive stereotypes and create something innovative, down-to-earth, and nuanced. The volume Annie Allen met that desire head on with its title poem “The Anniad.” This poem, which was a parody of Virgil’s the Aeneid, was a mock epic (in verse) that would center African American Annie as its main character. And while Annie’s desire for love and adulation in “The Anniad” may be simplistic, Brooks made sure that none of the aforementioned negative constructions of black females could be applied to Annie. Also, by creating this work Brooks was extolling the life of an ordinary black girl, ultimately proving her life to be important and worthy of her own Latin-esque epic. This volume also includes the poem that is my primary focus, “The Rites for Cousin Vit.” Brooks uses this poem to take a traditionally vilified woman and subvert readers’ gaze on her, thus liberating and revivifying her. This rebirth is particularly interesting considering the setting of the poem is a funeral and even more specifically, a casket. We may even go on to assume that Brooks gives Cousin Vit the respect in death that she could not attain in life.

Brooks’ “Cousin Vit” poem is a sonnet, or perhaps a more accurate description would be a “mock-sonnet.” A traditional sonnet has 14 lines, and Brooks does at least follow this requirement, but foregoes some of the others. For example, Brooks’ lines alternate between ten and eleven syllables. She does not strictly conform to iambic pentameter with five iambs in every line. When we consider the three forms of sonnets, Spenserian, Petrarchian, and Shakespearian, “The Rites to Cousin Vit” most closely resembles a Spenserian sonnet with its first octave, or eight lines, having an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme. However, Brooks diverts from this because the rhyme scheme for “The Rites for Cousin Vit” is ABBA CDDC EFGG EF. All of these deviations from the traditional sonnet are important for readers to note considering Brooks’ extreme familiarity with form. Why doesn’t Brooks just stick to the traditional format of the sonnet? Why does she stray away from the traditional meter and vary the rhyme scheme so much? Readers may begin to think that Brooks is intentionally avoiding the confines of the traditional sonnet, but what would be her goal in doing this? I won’t attempt to answer these questions at this point; however, I think examining the way Brooks both embraces and eschews traditional sonnet rules may reveal some answers.

Cousin Vit is an unconventional female character both in life and in death. And Brooks, fully understanding what the constructions of black females had been historically relegated to, set out to liberate Cousin Vit. Women of the 1950’s, and even of contemporary times, have always struggled with propriety. Our morals and values have been examined and scrutinized for centuries both in real life and in literature. Who we marry, whether we choose to have children or not, whether we are housewives or part of the workforce, and especially our marital status have unfortunately always been a burden no woman can escape despite her race or class. Sadly, the stakes have always been higher (or even more restrictive) for African American women who typically hail from morally conservative, religious family structures. Knowing this makes Cousin Vit an even more priceless construction from Brooks.

This is not the first time Brooks has examined African American characters with non-traditional lifestyles in her work. One poignant example of Brooks examining both sides of the coin (and I might go so far as to say affirming the more rambunctious side of the coin) is the poem “Sadie and Maud.” This poem was included in Brooks’ first volume of poems in 1945, A Street in Bronzevile. At first glance, this poem appears to be a sing-songy light-hearted poem with its’ ABAB rhyme scheme. However, the more they read it, readers discover some very complex themes. The two sisters and main characters of this poem lead very different lives. One sister, Maud, attends college, while Sadie stays home but explores life to its fullest. The line “Sadie scraped life / with a fine-tooth comb” begins to give readers the impression that Sadie was a lady who “turned every corner,” or left no stone unturned, so to speak. However, the following stanza solidifies Sadie as a woman determined to live free.

She didn’t leave a tangle in. Her comb found every strand Sadie was one of the livingest chits In all the land.

This metaphor of the “fine-tooth comb” and of tangled hair, is an interesting one. While not all readers understand about the texture of African American hair, some (like me) have first-hand knowledge. Of course, there are many textures of African American hair, but I believe Brooks specifically means thick, coarse African American hair. Brooks is acknowledging African American hair culture while simultaneously signifying that it takes a determined woman to remove every tangle.

Brooks is an expert at highlighting a woman who lives unconventionally (much like Cousin Vit), but Sadie lives life to its fullest and is unconventional in a way that differs from Cousin Vit. These unconventional ways parallel her with Cousin Vit, but also set her apart from Cousin Vit. In the poem, readers discover Sadie also bore two children out of wedlock. This was totally frowned upon during the mid-twentieth century, and while women of contemporary times don’t face the same level of restrictive values as seven decades ago, there are remnants of disapproval for an unwed, pregnant mother that still linger even today. The line “Sadie bore two babies/under her maiden name” tells us that Sadie wasn’t married and even suggests that no male figure was even present to bestow his name on the children. Again, readers should be reminded, while it is almost commonplace for single women to give children their last name today, this was a rarity during the mid 1950s. Probably even more so if readers assume Brooks’ character Sadie hails from a morally conservative Midwestern African American family. And speaking of family, readers don’t have to assume how Sadie’s parents felt, since the third stanza says –

Maud and Ma and Papa Nearly died of shame Every one but Sadie Nearly died of shame.

This clearly depicts the climate of the time, as well as the importance of a family’s opinion.

The poem’s fourth stanza mentions when Sadie “said her last so long” (which could inevitably be a very odd way of alluding either to Sadie’s death or to her last time being seen by the family, but I would assert the former) that her daughters “struck out from home.” As poets, word choice is crucial. Diction is the vehicle driving readers to your destination and pushes the poem’s ideology forward; therefore, readers know Brooks’ choice of the words “struck out” is intentional. “Struck out” connotes a baseball game or even more interestingly a flame that is lit. Sadie’s flame of life burned bright and now that she’s leaving (metaphorically or concretely), the daughters have been left with Sadie’s legacy. Brooks writes, “Sadie had left as heritage / Her fine-tooth comb.” Readers know that the daughters are going to follow in their mother’s footsteps, despite the world’s judgement and consequences. The daughters following in Sadie’s footsteps are signaling that they won’t deviate from the mother’s example. In fact, I would argue that while the other main character in the poem, Maud, goes to college, it is truly Sadie who lives her best life. Despite three-fifths of the poem being focused on Sadie, the poem ends with a whole stanza dedicated to Maud. The sister who went to college ends up as a “thin brown mouse” living all alone. Not all women who do “the right thing” by the narrow societal constraints end up happy or fulfilled. So what does bring a woman happiness? Freedom from morals and traditional gender duties? This is a hard question to answer, but Brooks by writing “the rites for Cousin Vit” finds a way to celebrate a woman that many others would frown upon.

The primary way this paper will examine how Brooks revivifies and celebrates the central character in “The Rites for Cousin Vit” will be through diction. Early on in the poem readers can see that Cousin Vit is a strong, perhaps both physically and mentally, individual. While she was carried out the door without protest, she also “kicked back the casket-stand.” (These lines will prove symbolic once again later as well.) “But it can’t hold her” is a metaphorical way of saying not even a casket could control or constrain Cousin Vit. Even in the third line, Brooks’ choice of “stuff and satin aiming to enfold her” is a lively and smart choice. People sometimes feel, as I often have, that the formality or pomp and circumstance of a funeral can almost suffocate the spirit of the deceased. While Brooks used the word “enfold,” the word “engulf” could easily be substituted here. Cousin Vit’s vivacious spirit could’ve been overridden by the “uppity” formality of the funeral. But Brooks won’t let that happen. In the proceeding line, Brooks even personifies the casket’s top saying it has “contrition.” But as Brooks approaches the middle of the poem, a transformation takes place.

In order to illuminate properly Cousin Vit’s colorful personality—and give readers a clear division between the two parts of the poem—Brooks has crafted a natural division, or half-way point, at line 6 in this variation on a sonnet. After proclaiming this stiff ceremony is “too much,” Brooks marks a clear separation with the line “She rises in the sunshine.” This line shows Cousin Vit’s spirit is leaving the body and rising into heaven, or into the skies. This spiritual death, as opposed to the original physical one, is a brilliant half-way marker for the poem. It’s ingenious because Brooks has made the choice to ignore the typical half-way point of a sonnet, line 7, and place her break one line prior to the natural breaking point. Brooks is both giving a nod to the conventional sonnet, while forging new ground of her own. Another example of Brooks working slyly within the sonnet convention, while also protesting it, happens right in the poem’s opening. Cousin Vit was carried “unprotesting out the door,” yet in the very next line she “kicked-back the casket stand.” Totally confused? Don’t be. Brooks enjoys batting form around like a cat does a crunched ball of plastic. Just think of Brooks as a literary superhero who has come to “rescue” Cousin Vit from the confines of the casket and the funeral, and return her to the things she loves. The lines following line six paint a clear picture about Vit’s character.

Before we delve into how Brooks characterizes Cousin Vit in the last eight lines, I want to reflect back to the way black females have been generally categorized in literature and film. I mentioned the reductive stereotypes of Mammy, Jezebel, Tragic Mulatto and Sapphire earlier in this paper to ground our dialectic and show what Brooks is working against. Sadie from “Sadie and Maud” does not fully embody a Jezebel or Sapphire stereotype, although she does have sex and bear children out of wedlock. In a bold feminist move, she shamelessly gives them her maiden name, completely eliminating the man, or maleness, out of the equation. Similarly, Cousin Vit is not a Mammy caricature running behind white folks cooking their meals and raising their children. She is a gregarious woman similar to Sadie, squeezing every drop of liquid from life’s sponge.

Now let’s examine Brooks’ diction choices for the latter half of “the rites for Cousin Vit.” I will not investigate all of her choices, but phrases such as “back to the bars she knew and the repose /In love-rooms” indicate that Cousin Vit was familiar with seedy places. Women of the 1950s had some agency, but Queen-of-the-bar-scene wasn’t a respectable role during this time period! Cousin Vit also dances, but does so with a particular sexiness accented by the plethora of “s” sounds in line 10. “Even now she does the snake hips with a hiss” evokes Vit’s seductive charms with the use of alliteration as well as the word “snake.” Snake has ancient sexual connotations that date back as far as the Bible. As if this weren’t enough, Brooks continues saying she “slops the bad wine” and “talks / Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework” (the dental kind, not to be confused with the card game!). Cousin Vit was not ashamed to converse about things often thought to be taboo by normal women. All of these things add to the cumulative weight of Cousin Vit’s character and outline her as a daring woman for her time. And furthermore, Vit’s idiosyncrasies allow her to operate outside the previous narrowly constructed stereotypes. However, Brooks isn’t only interested in simply defining Cousin Vit’s character as a counter-stereotype, she is determined to liberate Cousin Vit and does so in the end of the poem.

The last two lines of the mock-sonnet, which usually contains the turn of thought or argument (traditionally referred to as the volta in the Shakespearean sonnet), are Cousin Vit’s final liberation. Here the end of the poem culminates by taking an ostracized individual and allowing her to live beyond her mere physical existence. Vit “walks in parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge / Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.” It is here in the afterlife that Cousin Vit finds happiness by chance. Here, Vit can indulge in her transgressions free of judgement. In death, she can return to all the unsavory places she frequented previously and just be. The last word of this poem, the linking verb of “is,” is linked to nothing here. It stands alone and is untethered, just as Cousin Vit’s spirit is. It now lives free as the wind that blows.

Obtaining this freedom, this liberation is such a triumph in “The Rites of Cousin Vit.” When I look back on all the disparaging stereotypes that have been foisted upon African American women in the past in film and literature, and then review the progressive constructions that Brooks forged with her poetry, I am damned proud that Brooks holds the title of our first African American Pulitzer Prize winner. Literary greats are supposed to push important global conversations forward; Brooks in her characterization of both Sadie and Cousin Vit opens a door previously closed to black women—the door of complexity and nuance. While Brooks does not show us what Cousin Vit’s life was like on earth before she died, we can assume she faced the same scorn and disapproving attitudes that Sadie faced. Sadie’s parents were horrified by their daughter’s out-of-wedlock children, yet Sadie’s daughters chose the exact same life as their mother. This symbolizes that Sadie’s life could not have been that bad. Cousin Vit was almost metaphorically suffocated by the strict and proper funeral proceedings (and accoutrements). But when she ascended into the spirit world, she found freedom and happiness in her old dives and habits. Two complicated, messy characters’ lives reverberate off one another and are needed in the literary landscape. This slight parallel brings two African American characters created by Shonda Rimes, Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, to mind. Both are professional, highly-educated black women in America making very bad decisions in their personal lives. These characters were ground-breaking when they emerged on the television screen because contemporary black women had never helped to murder their white husbands on primetime, network television before. Or modern black women had never slept with the President of the United States in a computer closet on screen before. It may sound crazy to wish for such constructions, but black women are starved to see television producers color outside the lines a bit, and create something nuanced.

This kind of nuance is evident in “the rites for Cousin Vit.” Hopefully, by examining the paltry black female stereotypes of the past, a similar character (Sadie) to Cousin Vit, and watching Brooks work within, but also break out of, traditional forms such as sonnet and ballad—readers can see Brooks constructing new archetypes for Black women characters. I chose to make “The Rites for Cousin Vit” my primary focus here, mostly because the poet and the scholar chose Annie Allen as the volume they wanted study. However, throughout much of Brooks’ work, she opens our minds to a variety of black women. Even Annie in the “Anniad,” who may initially seem simple, has a bit of somber complexity. Annie’s a love-sick girl who gets disappointed by her man and ends up “Hugging old and Sunday sun.” None of us want to end up like this. In my life this old Sunday sun is the tired, restrictive stereotypes of black women. I yearn for more and feel we must study brilliant poets such as Brooks, and also create our own Sadies, Cousin Vits, Olivias and Annalise Keatings. May we all look forward, and strive for, this new tomorrow.

The Anniad (KH)

Here’s what I want to say about Brooks’ “The Anniad.” So, it’s a mock epic about a young dark-complexioned African American woman who moons for love, overinvests in it when she has it for a brief time, and wastes away as a delicate broken flower after she loses it. Not that Annie’s experience isn’t a subject matter that could be treated by another poet more sympathetically. It must really stink to have your beautiful black skin cause others of “your own people” to overlook you, and to keep you from the euphoria of young romantic love that others get to enjoy. Furthermore, how terrible, once you tentatively and briefly do experience romantic love, to have it taken from you by a white man’s war that strips your lover of the capacity to appreciate the satisfactions you have to offer him. Even if young romantic love is a fantasy that most adults grow out of, it seems a rite of passage that one has a right to, but that is denied to Annie.

As I say, though, Brooks’ treatment of Annie’s fraught (due to colorism) version of that rite of passage does not invite readers to share Annie’s hopes, joys, and sorrows from the inside. Her choice of the mock epic form rather distances or reduces the significance of Annie’s story in the same way that Pope’s use of mock epic reduces the significance of the feud between the Petre and Fermor families in 18th century England.

So, 21-year-old Robert Petre cuts a lock of hair from his 15-year-old cousin Arabella Fermor’s hair. It may be a little weird, but it’s no hanging matter, and the Fermor and Petre families need to get over it for aristocratic London’s smooth social life to continue. And in the meanwhile, Pope has a heck of a lot of fun in his playfully ridiculous poem, managing at one and the same time to celebrate the glittering beauty of the English aristocratic world and to laugh at it for its “ritualized triviality” (Norton Anthology of English Literature I, 8th edition, page 2513), oblivious of the “grimmer, darker world” that “surrounds it.” More than anything, though, the reader is invited not to expand her knowledge of that world, and certainly not to care about the petty incident of the stolen hair, but to delight in the display of Pope’s verbal inventiveness, for which both the incident and the society in which it takes place are merely a platform, the stage from which the cirque du solei of Pope’s metaphors and rhymes elevate, twirl, and tumble.

Of course, if the world of Pope’s mock epic is one of glittering beauty surrounded by grimmer circumstances (the poverty, unhygienic filth, and desperate crimes of England’s cities at that time), the world of Brooks’ mock epic consists in just such grimmer circumstances, barely glimpsed in Pope’s poem, while the ornate beauty of Pope’s world is what is only glimpsed in Brooks’, as figments of her characters’ starved imaginations. Nevertheless, the machinery of mock epic works in similar ways in both instances—to stave off potential pain. In Pope’s world, the pain of disappointed social life due to withdrawn invitations from events and gatherings, is avoided through retroactive diminishment of the feud; in Brooks’ world, a world that already stings with second class citizenship, restricted economic opportunities, scarcity of resources, etc., it’s the added pain of disappointed romantic love that is being proactively diminished.

And as in Pope’s poem, so in Brooks’, the attention of the reader is drawn from the life presented to the verbal pyrotechnics of the poet. With its metrical patterning, abundant variation of rhyme schemes, alliteration, paradoxes, wide range in diction—from the literary, even sometimes archaic, to ever-so-slight hints of the black vernacular idiom of mid-20th century Chicago—with its use of poetic tropes and its polystylism, “The Anniad,” as Henry Taylor wrote in the Kenyon Review in 1991, is a technical tour de force (120). So, you have a poetic feat of strength (the literal meaning of tour de force) representing an experience of vulnerability, which is sometimes perceived as weakness.

About a decade-and-a-half, then, before black women simply proclaimed their beauty and strength directly in the “black is beautiful” movement, here’s Brooks, herself a dark-skinned woman, seemingly lamenting the fate of her kind, but doing so in a manner that proclaims the opposite. Poor abandoned Annie, already at twenty-four having outlived her one brief moment of love, “Hugging old and Sunday sun. / Kissing in her kitchenette / The minuets of memory.” The poet who writes these lines seems anything but depressed, alliterating on s-, k-, and m-, tossing in the music/dance image, and shifting the meter, after three hundred lines of catalectic trochees, to bouncy iambs. There appears to be a kind of poetic wink wink going on here: we black women are so forlorn (NOT). Annie may feel sorry for herself, but we don’t have time for it: “Little lady who lost her twill, / Little lady who lost her fur / Shivers in her thin hurrah.” You can almost hear that voice that adults use for children whose behavior is retrograde for their age, say, a ten-year-old acting like a six-year-old: “awwww, did the wittle boy’s bawoon pop?!” Little boy stiffens up, wipes away his tear, knowing that ten-year-olds don’t cry over popped balloons. The balloons of dark-complexioned black women in 1940s south side Chicago are forever popping, Brooks’ own no doubt among them, but here’s Brooks the poet making a game of it, and by doing so exemplifying to other black women that life isn’t over when their Tan Men leave.

The game Brooks plays over the top of this material, of course, is in the multiplication of rhetorical tropes and schemes. I’m not a rhetorician, but just off-hand I see alogism, anadiplosis, analepsis, anaphora, anastrophe, antanaclasis, antithesis, antonomasia, apostrophe, asyndeton, auxesis—and that’s just the a’s. I won’t bore readers by exhaustively going through each of Brooks’ rhetorical twists. But let’s look at a couple of my favorite things, at least.

I love, in §11, Brooks’ use of antithesis (the contrast of ideas by means of parallel arrangement of words or clauses) with regard to the forlorn Annie: “Whom the higher gods forgot, / Whom the lower gods berate.” The lower gods, of course, are simply the black folk of the streets of south side Chicago. There is a kind of irony (in this deeply ironic poem) in referring to a poor, beleaguered people as gods, but then they are the gods of their world, who sit in judgment on “chocolate” (dark Annie) that doesn’t realize she can’t afford to be sweet, waiting for her knight in shining armor. And yes, there is the further irony that in the communities of (white) luxury chocolate, the food, is sweet (though unprocessed chocolate is of course bitter, not sweet—ironies pile up on ironies, “glass begets glass” [§29]). The racism, the inequality, the internalized hatred of color—this world is a mess, but here’s the poet balancing one phrase (the higher gods) against another (lower gods), ordering this world, up to the task.

I love too, the parallel contrast at the end of §1 and the beginning of §2: Annie desires “What was never and is not. // What is ever and is not.” I can’t find in my various handbooks the name for a repeated phrase with two words changed; I guess it’s a kind of antanaclasis (the repetition of a key word or phrase as a play on words), but I’m betting there’s a more specific term. Regardless, Brooks’ cute little verbal trick effectively highlights the fact that Annie’s fantasies of love are futile—black girls in Annie’s world don’t find their princes—and thus are an absence, a non-starter (“was never”), but in their persistence, their refusal to go away, to leave the Annies of the world in peace, are also a presence (“is ever”). That antanaclasis, for want of a more specific term, is a little ritual dance on Brooks’ part to a drum beat of deprivation, extending nothing to something through poetic form.

What else? I love Brooks’ adjective “ocean-eyed” for the lover Annie dreams of. Sigmund Freud had popularized the term “oceanic feeling” (a sense of expansion to and merging with the universe) in The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), those two classics of psychological disenchantment. “The Anniad,” in its own way, is the great poem of urban black feminine disenchantment. How appropriate that Brooks uses ocean-eyed in the same way Freud uses oceanic, as a synecdoche (substitution of part for the whole) for the transcendental spell that unsuits human beings for the compromises of civilization (Freud) and black women for the disappointments of the slum (Brooks).

I also love Brooks’ clever use of imagery to describe the operation Annie wants her future hero to perform on her: the “ocean-eyed” one will “rub her secrets out / And behold the hinted bride.” Scratch-off lottery tickets didn’t come into existence until 1974, so I’m being anachronistic in suggesting that for 21st century readers Brooks’ metaphor mixes pre-Raphaelite fantasy (“behold the hinted bride”) with much less poetic fortune seeking in contemporary times, at Annie’s expense (pun-intended). Except that, when Tan Man actually arrives, we practically watch him bite the coin (to test for counterfeit) of Annie’s love, crassly assessing its worth: “As for jewels, counting them, / Trying if the pomp be pure” (§8). There’s a delicious added irony here—pomp by definition is always inflated, always distanced from the real thing, never pure. Recall King Lear making a note-to-self to get closer to reality: “Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what retches feel, / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them” III.iv). Tan Man has no interest in shaking any superflux Annie’s way; his approach to her is much more business-like. He “engages / For the springtime of her pride” (§6), as one engages to have work done on one’s house, or to have an accountant look over one’s books.

In point of fact, Brooks is at her best undercutting the pretensions of Tan Man: “Narrow master master-calls.” That’s a beautiful antistasis (repetition of a word in a different or contrary sense) by which Brooks indicates, and calls into question, the leap Tan Man makes in allowing Annie to treat him as a king. This narrow master, master of none, is suddenly acting like he’s “all-that,” master-calling Annie to his false ceremony (and the disturbing echoes of master in the context of black history cannot be avoided here either). But “No dominion is defied” by the love-starved Annie.

Yet maybe Brooks’ most telling figures of speech with regard to Tan Man are the dilogic (intentionally ambiguous) phrases that come after he has abandoned Annie:

Think of sweet and chocolate Minus passing-magistrate, Minus passing-lofty light, Minus passing-stars for night[.] (§23)

Passing here carries both a chronological and an aesthetic sense. Chronologically, the Tan Man’s reign with Annie was always destined to be temporary, even if the war had not intervened, because he was never worthy of her worship (of her love, maybe, but not her worship). There was a dynamic built into their love that meant that even in its flourishing it was already passing, and Tan Man is only a passing-magistrate, a magistrate for now. But passing also carries the aesthetic sense of being judged worthy, but barely—Tan Man will pass for Annie’s king, but he’s not the real thing. As Annie’s magistrate, Tan Man “will do,” will pass, but only for now, is always already passing. (This isn’t about beating up on Tan Man—who could live up to Annie’s dreams, and who wouldn’t be damaged by the traumas of war? I’m simply explicating Brooks’ verbal “dexterity” [§12] for now.)

I could go on about the verbal games Brooks plays (and hardly get to the end of them). I particularly appreciate her clever oxymorons (figures of speech combining contradictory terms): Annie in her “gilt humility” (gold-covered humility, §7) is as much acting out a game of love as Tan Man is (which doesn’t mean she isn’t devastated when the game is broken off). Thus the fragile romantic world (“the inner, hasty hall / Which compulsion cut from shade” [§32]) she constructs with Tan Man until he goes to war, is one of “set excess” (§11), of an excessive love that’s been pre-planned and fully scripted. Some other nice oxymorons appear later in the poem with “culprit magics” (§32) and “halt magnificence” (§33). And I don’t think Brooks sprinkles these oxymorons in here and there in “The Anniad” just for fun. They highlight the contradictions, the aporias, the impasses that are everywhere in Annie’s world—I am beautiful, but not to the world, and not even to the men who might “engage” my time for a while; I seem to be made for love (“I am bedecked with love!” [§28]), but find myself in a world that isn’t made for me. And so on. Annie’s world is a broken world, and the contradictory knots of oxymoron are therefore recurring features of its syntax, like flaws in the grain of wood.

But the even more telling syntactical feature in the “Anniad” is ellipsis, or leaving out of words. A simple way, maybe, to think of ellipsis is just as broken syntax (for a broken world!), in which some crucial part of speech is left out. Ellipsis first becomes predominant, unsurprisingly, when the war (personified as “Doomer”) come to take Tan Man away from Annie. It’s then that we get sentences without subjects. “Names him. Tames him. Takes him off, / Throws to columns” (§13). You can see that the trope perfectly conveys the facelessness, the impersonality of this thing that has come into these black lives, so remote from the machinations of German vice-chancellors or Japanese emperors. “Then to marches. Then to know / The hunched hells across the sea”—not only the subject-nouns, even the verbs are pared away from this bureaucratic Damoclean sword dropped on Annie’s fairy tale. But Brooks also uses ellipses to describe Tan Man’s actions upon his return from war (as if the lack of ownership and of agency of the war machine has infected its participants). “Hunts a further fervor now. / Shudders for his impotence. / Chases root and vehemence.” Where are the subjects in these sentences? They’re missing, just as the man Tan Man once was is missing. He returns as an absence in the subject position.

I could go on, but I’m running out of space. And I can’t do that without at least mentioning one of the more remarkable things Brooks does late in the poem. In §s 35-37, Brooks, in a striking move, apostrophizes (addresses, exhorts) her own character, breaking the invisible wall between author and the world of her creation (I can recall Dickens doing this in some of his novels). Brooks, initially in over-the-top, intentionally pretentious (bathetic) language (“Hence from scenic bacchanal, / Preshrunk and droll prodigal!”), castigates Tan Man, exhorting him to give up the restless womanizing he’s been pursuing since his return, and to go back to Annie. I say initially in overblown language, because then something happens: the imagery shifts to something seemingly out of Tim Burton’s film The Nightmare Before Christmas: “Skeleton [she says to Tan Man], settle, down in bed. / Slide a bone beneath Her head” (§36).

Then something even more astonishing happens—Annie says thanks but no thanks: “Pursing lips for new good-byeing / Now she folds his rust and cough / In the pity old and staunch. / She remarks his feathers off” (§37). And Tan Man naturally goes back to his bar women, who at least have the decency not to see, or at least to pretend not to see, that he “is dolesome and is dying.” Annie will suffer. Heck, every telephone ring “hoists her stomach into air” (§40) because she thinks it’s him, but she is no longer the girl who “genuflects to love” (§10). In a little-known modernist masterpiece by Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), the characters conspire to overthrow their own author, but I can’t think of another narrative poem in which the author intervenes in her own creation on behalf of her protagonist and that protagonist declines the assistance.

Furthermore, when Brooks, in admonishing Tan Man, insists he “close [his] fables and fatigues; // Kill that fanged flamingo foam / And the fictive gold that mocks; / Shut your rhetorics in a box” (§36), to whom is she speaking? Is it to Tan Man, or to herself? What else but the mock-epic that is the “The Anniad” is full of the “fictive gold that mocks”? And who else but Brooks herself might need to “shut her rhetorics in a box”? In “The Children of the Poor” later on in Annie Allen, an older “Annie” (but I think really Brooks) says “My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device. / But … plenitude of plan shall not suffice / … To ratify my little halves” (her readers, at least the ones who need her to “Be [their] reviver … To / Take out a skulk, to put a fortitude in. / Give [us our lives] again, whose right is quite / The charm of porcelain, the vigor of stone”).

Poets, for the most part, don’t write anymore like Brooks did in the “Anniad.” And in fact Brooks herself did not much write like it again. She did not put all of her rhetorics in a box, and never would she go so far from “plentitude of plan” as merely to “protest in sprawling lightless ways” (“Children of the Poor”) as, perhaps, some who go by the name of poets do today. And I have to admit, the “Anniad” is hardly to today’s taste. For me it’s something like the music of Chopin’s Preludes or Etudes or Nocturnes. There is a profound emotional core in those pieces, yet the pianistic technique is so virtuosic as, at least initially, to distract from the human drama at the center. All you can notice is the pianist’s wildly flying fingers, or hear is the rapid spray of notes, the flourishes, the crescendos and decrescendos: “Little as a drop from grand / When a heart decides “Too much!” (§16). We can stand for a grace note here and there, but pile on the musical or verbal play and you lose us. Yet Chopin surely remains the greatest composer between Beethoven and Brahms, and when we listen repeatedly, that moving, profound emotional core becomes clearer and clearer through the dazzling fireworks.

Critics like me want to rescue literary works like the “Anniad.” Having responded to their call to figure them out, to make sense of them, we want others to know their joys as well. I had a peer in grad school who wrote a fifty-page paper on Henry David Thoreau’s poetry. She couldn’t let it go, was in all our ears about it whenever we had a modicum of patience to hear her out. Yet here we are thirty years later, and no one cares about Thoreau’s poetry, nor for much more than Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” though he wrote a number of other books. Later on in my studies, I read the whole of Herman Melville’s epic poem about religion and modernity, Clarel. I still think it’s sooo good, but I’ve given up proselytizing for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if people, other than a handful, don’t stop reading Moby Dick, let alone Clarel.

So I fully recognize that Brooks’ reputation rests more on “The Rites for Cousin Vit” and the many other brilliant short poems she wrote, which keep the meaning and the formal artistry more in complementary balance, than it rests on “The Anniad.” But I can’t help saying: there are treasures there, for anyone willing to go digging for them. In closing I’ll just point out a few in passing: the set-piece in §39 in which a hardened old bar-frequenter, not unlike Cousin Vit, rapidly shakes off any disappointment she might have at losing Tan Man and readies herself for the next lover (or at least the next man willing to buy her a beer), about whom she has no illusions (she “slit[s] her eyes [to] find her fool”). Or what about the beautiful chronographia (§s 24-27) recounting Annie’s grief through its four seasons? And how great is the stanza (§30) dismissing the notion that we might find solace for lost love in the great books (Plato, Aeschylus, Seneca and other classic authors fantastically leave their pages “Of agonized and friendly ghosts” to have a laugh at this woman millennia later “who looks / To find kisses pressed in books”).

And how chilling is Brooks’ evocation of that monster, the desert of the soul when we are blighted in our hopes and expectations (it “Shakes its great and gritty arms: / And perplexes with odd eyes” [§34])? One last one—I’m bowled over by Brooks’ surrealist evocation of Annie’s paranoia about Tan Man’s other lovers being everywhere: “In the indignant dark there ride / Roughnesses and spiny things / On infallible hundred heels … Harried sods dilate, divide, / Suck her sorrowfully inside” (§41). This is as good as the famous “whisper music” stanza in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings / And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall.” Does anyone really know what this “means”? Who cares, if it gets under the skin? And it does. And “The Anniad” does, or at least so many of its treasures do, for readers willing to work for them a little.

Dialogue (cd & KH)

cd: Your paper inspires many interesting points for dialogue, but your short paragraph on passing stands out to me. You mention that this term carries both a “Chronological and aesthetic sense,” but I’m wondering if it conjured the phenomenon of passing in regard to light-skinned blacks being mistaken for white? I am reminded here of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel entitled Passing which features two childhood friends, Claire and Irene, and their relationship (or lack thereof) to blackness. Irene is often irritated with Claire, who constantly passes for white, but stays entangled with Claire until the sober end of the novel. Readers know Tan Man is attractive because he’s light-skinned, but is Brooks drawing a bigger connection to Tan Man and his struggles with race? Of course, this also connects to the stereotype of the Tragic Mulatto, which I mention in my section. Might there be any way in which Tan Man oscillates between the spaces of blacks and whites and his womanizing is a manifestation of that?

KH: Great point. How can Brooks’ use of the word passing in three consecutive lines about Tan Man not resonate at least to some extent with the huge issue of racial passing? “The Anniad” doesn’t say anywhere that Tan Man passes in the strictest sense, but passing sometimes occurred from individuals simply declining to correct others’ misconceptions—this boss, this woman, must think I’m white; it’s not my job to tell them otherwise. Annie projects onto Tan Man her ideal, the “paladin” (knight) or “magistrate” she has waited for—and until after the war he simply doesn’t bother to set her straight. In that sense he “passes.”

But let me ask you a question. You talk of Sadie and Maud as representing two types of black women that interest Brooks—the disreputable but life-affirming versus the respectable but missing out. Vit and Sadie are clearly parallel, but is Annie comparable to Maud? And what of the less flattering portrait of the “Sadie/Vit” type that Brooks proffers in stanza 39 of “The Anniad”?

cd: While Annie and Maud do share some characteristics, ultimately, I’d say they are not totally comparable. While I used Sadie’s character as touchstone for comparison to Cousin Vit, even they exhibit nuances that delineate them from one another. As for the representation of the “woman of the night” mentioned in stanza 39, she seems a bit more cunning than Vit. Vit’s a good time girl, the woman who “slit(s) her eyes and find(s) her fool,” is focused and strategic. She embodies a kind of calculated confidence that Vit doesn’t show. Overall, as a poet I think it’s risky to envision all characters from one poem to the next, as duplicates. Poets often illuminate similar themes in their poems, (think of Sharon Olds and her multiple family series or Natasha Trethewey’s examination of mixed race subjects and issues) but each new poem is a silo unto itself. Therefore, comparisons can be made, but characters must ultimately be evaluated separately.

In “The Anniad” Brooks mentions taffeta in stanza 31, in “the rites for Cousin Vit” Brooks mentions satin that aims “to enfold her.” What do you think is Brooks’ fascination with these luxurious fabrics? Do you think it’s an arbitrary dalliance or is Brooks subversively trying to allude to royalty?

KH: I’m glad you asked that, because it allows me to get back to what I think we’re both interested in: poetry. I think the “forbidden taffeta” that Annie indulges in for solace, and the satin of the coffin that seeks to enfold Vit, are both evocative of the highly stylized brand of poetry Brooks is known for, in which she enfolds the lives of the black people of her world. In Brooks’ little known manifesto “Poets Who are Negroes,” published one year after Annie Allen, she says that black poets have ready-made subjects in the “major indignities” of black life in America, indignities that “drive” the pen so readily it makes white poets envious. But, she says, it is a temptation and a mistake for the poet to present lives as if they require “no embellishment, no interpretation, no subtlety.”

cd: Yes, I agree with you. It seems none of these fabulous fabrics can “hold” the lives of these women. And more importantly, acknowledging your and Brooks’ greater argument, Black people do encounter indignities every day which can be used as fodder for poetry. Brooks says (and I agree) “His mere body…is an eloquence. His quiet walk down the street… a speech to the people. Is a rebuke, is a plea, is a school.” However, I think it’s hella dangerous for black poets to think their everyday encounters with microaggressions are a license for laziness. We’re living in the #blacklivesmatter era where police brutality on young black men runs rampant, and honestly that has made many black people (including myself) angry. However, this anger, much like a water hose aimed at a blazing fire, should be packaged and dispersed with force, form and intent in order to extinguish the inferno. Baldwin tells us this all the time. All poets, black and white alike, should festoon their language and delight in their intricate creations. Are there other places in Annie Allen where you see Brooks advocating for the elevation of language? An elevation of characters? Perhaps even her first volume A Street in Bronzeville is an attempt to extol the everyday lives of poor, black South Side Chicagoans.

KH: Certainly it is that. In fact from Bronzeville (1945) through to In the Mecca (1968) she presents such a gallery of black characters in all their distinctness, it’s hard to see how she has been criticized for not being political enough. Is it better to write poem after poem declaiming injustice in the same way, or to help readers to see the individuals subjected to that injustice, in all their quirkiness, their pride, their faults? In the 14th section of The Womanhood series in Annie Allen, Brooks observes that “people protest in sprawling lightless ways” and “weep without form.” But what is needed, she says in “Children of the Poor,” is that the poet “makes a sugar of / The malocclusions, the inconditions of love,” or, as she puts it section XV, “What / We are to hope is that intelligence / Can sugar up our prejudice.” Brooks knows ultimately that the sugar cannot recompense, the taffeta and the satin cannot contain these black lives, as the funeral rites cannot contain Vit. The sonnet by itself is a box, a casket, that Vit escapes. Look at the way Brooks dismantles the language of the sonnet at the end of “Rites,” removing the normal parts of speech until finally the last “sentence” is the single word Is, a linking verb without subject or object to link. This is both poetry and the dissolution of poetry, and the lives of Vit, Annie, Sadie, Maud, etc., are both in these forms and out of them, escaping them. What else can a poet hope for?

cd: I think is it much better as you have said to make readers “see” the individuals subjected to various injustices. Brooks does that and more. She creates rare “openings” for the world to gaze through. Her poems “sing” in a way, turning all heads who can hear her lyrical chirping. One of my favorite new poems is “A Small Needful Fact” by contemporary poet Ross Gay. He doesn’t aim to villainize the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death, instead he decides to highlight a hidden aspect of Garner’s life—that he worked for the Horticulture department in New York City. Lines like “…with his very large hands…he put gently into the earth/ some plants,” show a tender side of Garner which many average Americans could never even imagine of this 6”3’, 300-pound man. Gay is a gem of a poet because he steers clear of mere soapboxing. When a poet can truly revivify a person, real or imagined (much like Cousin Vit), it is a feat. It’s what I strive for in my poems—a delicate unveiling of a revelatory, honest emotional truth. And that’s particularly hard to accomplish when the topic is delicate. Even in poems where Brooks visits sensitive subjects such as “Uncle Seagram,” (which is about a child’s realization that her Uncle is an alcoholic and abusing her), she does so with an unflinching eye, lacking sentimentality. Brooks shines a light on the dark places that perhaps African Americans, and the rest of America, have feared approaching. This is the aim of good poetry in my opinion. I try to do this in my first book Cornrows and Cornfields in a poem entitled “A Note to Don Cornelius.” Of course, I wrote the poem with the intent to express my feelings after he suddenly committed suicide in 2012. However, I dug up personal tidbits about his life, (like his joining the army being a Chicagoan etc.), in order to paint a full picture of this man that most of us only saw on our TV screens on a Saturday morning dance show. I yearned for more for him in death than just to be known as the black host who committed suicide. I wanted a rainbow in his death. This is what poets can hope for when they reach their zenith: to fill out a canvas completely. To paint the thing unseen.

KH: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (Keats). Enough said.

1 I will use § to indicate the stanza number. There are 43 §’s, or stanzas, in “The Anniad.”